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Thandabantu Nhlapo

Emeritus Professor of Private Law, University of Cape Town

Thandabantu Nhlapo has had an academic career spanning over three decades of research, writing, teaching, public service and social activism. He was a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town from 2004, and senior DVC since 2009 until his retirement in September 2014, with the title of Professor Emeritus. From 2004 to 2007, Nhlapo was the Chair of the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims (which came to be known as the Nhlapo Commission), appointed by President Mbeki to investigate disputes and claims arising in the traditional leadership sector.

From 2000 to 2004, he held the position of Deputy Chief of Mission and Deputy Ambassador at the Embassy of South Africa in Washington D.C. Before this diplomatic posting, Nhlapo had been appointed by President Mandela in 1996 as a full-time Commissioner on the South African Law Reform Commission. As Chair of the Project Committee on Customary Law, he was instrumental in the development of significant legislation in family law, including the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, which was passed by Parliament in 1998.

Nhlapo was with the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town from 1990 to 1995 where he advanced from Senior Lecturer to Professor and its Head. After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, he participated in the constitution-making process as convenor of the Technical Committee on Traditional Leadership, a committee of experts which advised the Constitutional Assembly on all matters relating to customary law and to traditional authorities. Their work contributed to Chapter 12 of the present Constitution.

Nhlapo has served as a member of the Executive Council of the International Society of Family Law (ISFL) and the Governing Council of the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT, Rome). He has authored and edited several books and has written numerous book chapters and journal articles, some of which have been cited in reported judgments of the Constitutional Court in South Africa and the Supreme Court of Swaziland. His academic research interests include African customary law and gender, women’s human rights in family law, traditional values and modern constitutions, and cultural diversity under the South African Constitution.

Nhlapo is the current Chair of the Human Rights Development Initiative (HRDI, Pretoria), a regional non-profit body which operates in 10 countries; has served on the executive of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW, Minneapolis) and is a former Deputy Chair of the Gender Education and Training Network (GETNET, Cape Town).

He holds a BA (Law), University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland;
LL.B (Hons.), University of Glasgow, Scotland;
DPhil, Oxford University, England and the honorary degree of Doctor of the University from Glasgow University.


  • –present
    Deputy Vice Chancelor for student affairs, international relations, University of Cape Town